A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen is a play that primarily focuses on the relationship between Nora and her husband, Torvald Helmer. The play has three acts which all take place in the Helmer residence. Torvald just received news about a promotion at work. Nora, his wife, is excited by this news as she believes that the promotion would come with increased income for her husband and thus relieve most of the money problems they have had to deal with in the past. They have three young children and a nanny to care for them (Mays 816). Torvald is against the idea of his wife working as he believes her primary role is to care for the family. The ways he talks to her makes it evident that he sees her as a child with limited understanding of most adult concepts. The story is set during the Christmas time, and thus the family spends most of their time decorating and hosting parties. Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll House” suggests a patriarchal society in which the social role of women was limited to caring for their homes.
The main protagonist in the book, Nora, seems to be struggling with accepting the idea of the traditional roles expected of her as a woman. The society views women as nothing more than dolls, with limited functions as evidenced by the life of Nora in the play. Although Nora might need self-exploration and discovering who she is beyond being a mother and a wife, society barely allows her enough space. In the first act, Nora enters the room, excited after doing a little shopping and looking forward to sharing the excitement with her husband.
Torvald dismisses her, arguing that she should not be wasting money. Nora points out that with his promotion coming up, they can afford to be reckless. Torvald states that the salary is not due until later in the year, to which Nora argues that they could borrow for now. Torvald tells her that she is foolish when it comes to matters of money, which he believes to be typical of a woman. He states, “Nora, Nora, how like a woman! No, but seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debts! Never borrow! Something of Freedom’s lost-and something of beauty, too-from a home that’s founded us; and we’ll go right on like that the little while we have to” (Mays 814).
The way Torvald talks to his wife makes it evident that he looks down on her because she is a woman. He believes that she would not have anything logical to say when it comes to matters related to money. The book makes it evident that the place of women in the society was dictated by the men, and thus, their identity was limited to what the men stated. Nora does not have a life outside that of her husband (Mays 816). He talks to her like a child most of the time, and she barely ever takes the initiative to stand up for herself. This could be attributed to the fact that she views him to be superior to her, and thus her reluctance to ever say anything that he would not find agreeable.
When Torvald calls her foolish, she is upset. Torvald attempts to cheer her up by calling her affectionate pet names rather than apologizing for the demeaning comment he made. He opts to offer her money that she could use to continue with her Christmas shopping. She seems pleased by the idea and thanks him profusely for the money and his generosity. The act further shows how men treated women like children or dolls. The scene shows the place of women in a society that treats them like dolls whose primary function is to amuse and entertain the men while taking care of their homes.
Another important character in the play which helps show the place of women is Mrs. Linde. She comes to the house and informs Nora of her husband’s death, lamenting of the fact that he left her with no money and no children. Nora shares with Linde regarding the fact that she had to borrow money for their trip to Italy, where her husband was to undergo treatment. Ever since she had been working and saving secretly to pay back the money, although she might be partners with her husband, it is clear that they are not equal in the way that he treats her and how she acts around him (Mays 841). One would expect that borrowing money to cover her husband’s hospital bills is something typical and nothing to be ashamed of. However, Nora knows that her husband would not have approved of her actions even though he needed her help.
Linde responds to this by sharing the story of how she had to marry a man she did not love because he had money which would help her care for her siblings. However, when her husband died, her business collapsed, and yet again, she was left with nothing. She was forced to take up odd jobs as long as it guaranteed that she could care for her family. The scene makes it evident to the readers some of the typical sacrifices that women often had to make for their families (Mays 856). Mrs. Linde gives up so much in life to ensure that her siblings are well taken care of, evidenced by the fact that she gives up her happiness as long as her family is well taken care of. These sacrifices are not limited to a particular class but spread across different economic classes in society. Other than Mrs. Linde and Nora, the nanny who takes care of Nora’s children also makes sacrifices each day as she leaves her children at home to come to work. Irrespective of this, the nanny is still grateful as she believes that the jobs help ensure that she is in a better position to cater to her family needs.
The views of men towards women become even more apparent when Torvald finds out that Nora took a loan to clear his hospital bills. Nora took the loan and forged her father’s signature because she cared for Torvald and wanted to help whichever way she could. When Torvald finds out what she did, he is infuriated and goes to the extent of claiming that her actions were nothing more than an effort to end his happiness. Rather than be grateful, her husband is blinded by his pride and sees her actions as a punch on his manhood. His pride becomes clearer when Nora compares him to her father. He states, “My dear Nora, there is a notable difference between your father and me. Your father’s official career was hardly above reproach. But mine is; and I hope it’ll stay that way as long as I hold my position” (Mays 841). Torvald believes himself to be better than even her father, which is why he is so offended by the idea that she took a loan for him. As a man, Torvald is expected to provide for his family’s needs, and thus, why his ego is wounded by the idea that Nora took a loan to help him with his medical bills.
Overall, the different female characters in the book make it clear the place of women in a society dominated by women. The main protagonist in the book, Nora, barely has a life of her own and primarily focuses on ensuring that her actions make her husband happy. At the end of the play, Torvald reminds her that she has a duty as a mother and a wife. Nora makes it clear that she does not love him, which does not seem to bother Torvald as one would expect. He starts that he is willing to work hard to provide for her, but as a man, he cannot sacrifice for a woman who does not respect his honor. Nora opts to leave, which could be argued to be an indication of her decision to finally find her life beyond the life that she has had to live.
- Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction To Literature. 12th ed., Norton, 2017, pp. 812-71.